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SpaceX Receives Pentagon Help To Develop New Rocket Engine

SpaceX has been awarded a Pentagon contract for development of its next generation Raptor rocket engine, which is 6 times more powerful than the Merlin engine it uses now.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch

The U.S. Department of Defense has announced a $33.7 million dollar contract awarded to SpaceX for the development of the Raptor rocket propulsion system prototype as part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The Raptor engine burns a mixture of liquid methane and liquid oxygen, and designed to produce six times the thrust of the Merlin engines SpaceX recently used on its historic mission that saw its first stage rocket land itself back on earth from orbit. Here’s why that’s important to SpaceX.

Currently, virtually all large military satellites launches are done by the United Launch Alliance, a consortium made up of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. In 2013, ULA was awarded a $1.1 billion contract for multiple launches using Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V or Boeing’s Delta IV rockets. SpaceX wants a piece of that pie.

According to Motley Fool, both ULA rockets use RD-180 engines purchased from Russia’s Energomash, which is majority owned by the Russian government. After Russia’s 2014 actions in Crimea, the US slapped economic sanctions on it and Energomash. They in turn decided they would not sell any more rocket engines to ULA. The US Congress responded to that by prohibiting the US military from using any Russian rocket engines to launch its satellites.

But Houston, we have a problem. No rocket engines means no satellite launches. ULA placed its hopes on either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne coming up with a new rocket engine to replace the RD-180 it can no longer buy from Energomash, but that process could take 3 or 4 years to complete.

So Congress has relented somewhat. Buried in the more than 1,000 page appropriations bill approved just before Christmas, it gave ULA approval to buy a supply of RD-180s — just enough to keep it in the military launch business for the time being. But clearly, America needs American made rockets for its various space programs going forward.

SpaceX-Falcon-Heavy

“SpaceX Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two” [Source: SpaceX]

Enter SpaceX, which received authorization to bid for Pentagon business last year. The next generation Raptor engines will be used to power the upcoming Falcon 9 “heavy lift” and “super heavy lift” rockets. The more powerful Falcon 9 could be used in place of the traditional satellite launching vehicles from Lockheed and Boeing. That would open the door for lucrative government contracts to flow to SpaceX instead of ULA.

There is a lot of money up for grabs launching satellites for the military over next several years. SpaceX has been funding its Raptor engine program out of its own pocket up until now, but under terms of the new contract, the Pentagon will provide $1 in development funding for every $2 invested by SpaceX.

Lockheed and Boeing might be giving way to the Aerospace upstart. SpaceX, like every venture Elon Musk is involved with, will put every ounce of effort into getting to the finish line ahead of everyone else.

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